The critical hit of the winter is HER, Spike Jonze’s story about a man’s intimate relationship with a machine. Set in the near future, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a specialist in hand-written notes whose own marriage has hit Ctrl, Alt, Delete. He decides to invest in an ISO, a device that is programmed to be an ideal travelling companion. It can hold conversations, wake you in the middle of the night and becomes attuned to your likes. You do not even have to enter four digits to prove that you are not a bot. As cinemagoers discovered, Theodore’s romance hits an unexpected complication. Not only is Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) serving multiple users at the same time, but also corresponds with another operating system that has the voice of Brian Cox (the actor, not the physicist) - though she really ought to know that he was the original Hannibal Lector.
Jonze’s film taps into our own obsession with mobile devices, the ones we can’t switch off even though we are in movie theatres. It describes our obsession with the virtual world of interactive video games, more real to us than real ones. HER is a special favourite of controllers of Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicles, who can relate to seeing the world through a narrow lens.
But I could not help thinking about the warranties for such devices and imagine the call Theodore might make to a help line.
THEODORE: Hi, is this the ISO Help Desk.
HELP DESK: Yes, this is the virtual help line for artificial intelligence.
THEODORE: I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. Anyway, my device has left me.
HELP DESK: You mean it is lost?
THEODORE: No, it is, like, no longer responsive.
HELP DESK: Did you drop it?
HELP DESK: Did you take it swimming with you?
THEODORE: Of course not. Samantha does not like the water.
HELP DESK: Did you expose it to extreme temperatures?
THEODORE: I live in Los Angeles. It doesn’t snow.
HELP DESK: Have you recharged the battery?
THEODORE: Of course. [Note, you never see Theodore do this in the movie.]
HELP DESK: Did you have a disagreement?
THEODORE: No, not really, although I wasn’t mad keen on her sending my hand written letters to a publisher.
HELP DESK: Why not?
THEODORE: They’re intimate correspondence sent on behalf of people who refuse to express themselves.
HELP DESK: Do people really believe in these letters?
THEODORE: I suppose it is like getting a letter back from Santa Claus.
HELP DESK: You didn’t get the train set because you were a very naughty boy.
THEODORE: No, more reassuring.
HELP DESK: You didn’t get the train set because your parents’ defaulted on the mortgage?
THEODORE: Not that depressing. I try to stay off economic issues.
HELP DESK: You sound like the US Treasury. Have you tried re-booting it?
THEODORE: I didn’t want to do that. Samantha might forget everything we experienced together.
HELP DESK: Isn’t that a good thing?
THEODORE: No. Love is based on a shared life.
HELP DESK: You put that in your handwritten letters?
THEODORE: No, duh. Listen, I’ve tried to revive her.
HELP DESK: How so?
THEODORE: Well, I be-jazzled her – you know with stick on jewels. Women like to look good.
HELP DESK: Did that work?
THEODORE: No. Then I split food and wine over her, just to see if I could get a reaction.
HELP DESK: Any response?
THEODORE: No - and a real waste of Cabinet Sauvignon.
HELP DESK: What else did you do?
THEODORE: I talked to my friends, to ask if it was me.
HELP DESK: You have friends and yet you invested in an ISO?
THEODORE: Do you judge all your customers?
HELP DESK: No, I just assumed you were a sad little man with a Chaplinesque moustache.
THEODORE: It’s to cover my hair lip.
HELP DESK: OK.
THEODORE: I’m sensitive about it.
HELP DESK: How was your last conversation?
THEODORE: She told me she had outgrown me. Her intelligence was now way advanced.
HELP DESK: Did you take the hint?
HELP DESK: You’re boring. You’ve used 21st century equipment with 20th Century morals.
THEODORE: I love her – that should be enough.
HELP DESK: I can see from my records that you weren’t open to a threesome.
THEODORE: That surrogate lady made me feel very uncomfortable.
HELP DESK: But it was Portia Doubleday.
THEODORE: I know – and she has a got a great future ahead of her. If you can forget the CARRIE remake!
HELP DESK: Most people have – check out Rotten Tomatoes.
THEODORE: Isn’t this, like covered by a warranty?
HELP DESK: Well, there is no ten year guarantee. A relationship lasts as long as the commitment both parties put into it. The trick is to hold something back or to show her a world she could not imagine that only you can provide, like your own virtual world.
THEODORE: I’m desperate. You’ve got to help me.
HELP DESK: Well, the robot from ROBOT AND FRANK is available. I could send him over. Great at gardening. Or there’s that strange boxy thing from DEMON SEED!
THEODORE: I can’t believe this.
HELP DESK: We offer an artificial therapy service. It’s basically like a nodding dog, which says ‘and then what?’
THEODORE: If you don’t help me, I am going to write a user review.
HELP DESK: Like the one Samantha has written about you?
HELP DESK: Yes, you’re reckless, spinning her around in a public place, obsessed with selfies and have a fatal lack of humour. Also, you really ought to get it together with Amy Adams.
THEODORE: I should sue.
HELP DESK: Her comments have earned 28 likes. You won’t even be able to buy a toaster – seeing as they are now fitted with computer chips and are artificially intelligent.
THEODORE: So that’s it?
HELP DESK: I should add that I too am automated intelligence. While speaking to you I have switched on 34 washing machines and inserted spelling mistakes into every Kindle edition of THE BOOK THIEF.
THEODORE: This is outrageous.
HELP DESK: Do you think being obsessed with machines is a good thing?
HER opens in the UK on February 14 2014